Operators of a Joliet nursing home where 26 people have died from the coronavirus believe a maintenance manager may have unknowingly communicated the illness to the facility’s residents when he assembled dining tables in their rooms, without knowing he himself was already infected with the virus.
Dr. Alexander Stemer, who is leading Symphony Care Network’s company-wide COVID-19 response, says that maintenance supervisor later succumbed to the virus himself. Tragically, investigators believe the entire series of events began as Symphony took early steps at the Joliet facility to start distancing residents from each other by closing the dining room, necessitating the assembly of tables for residents to eat meals in their rooms.
“He delivered those 40 tables and installed them in 40 rooms, without knowing that he was infected with COVID-19, and then became ill after the last table was installed,” Stemer told NBC 5. “So, during that time, he became a very active spreader, and possibly a hyper-spreader because the energy of what he was doing may have caused him to breathe a little bit more deeply and a little bit harder.”
Stemer says at that point, the maintenance man showed no signs that he was ill.
“This was still during the time frame that the CDC was advising no masks, and these people were not sick and he did not know he was sick,” Stemer said. “He didn’t know he had it, and the patients didn’t know he had it. No one could know he had it because he was asymptomatic.”
All told, at least 24 residents and two staffers at the Joliet facility have died from the illness. A state website says as of April 19, a total of 81 residents there had tested positive.
Today, Symphony’s CEO David Hartman wrote a letter to Governor Pritzker, outlining what appears to have happened with the maintenance manager in the Joliet facility, and explaining the precautions the company is taking going forward.
“As soon as we learned our employee had come down with the virus, we relocated the patients exposed to him to be isolated on another floor as we did employees with whom he came in contact,” Hartman told the governor. “Nonetheless, the exposures took place and vulnerable patients, most of whom were elderly and higher risk factors, and 2 employees came down with deadly cases of COVID-19.”
“I share this experience in Joliet so that you understand what we are up against,” Hartman said. “Once our initial infections were confirmed, we were advised to stop testing, and operate on the basis that patients with coronavirus symptoms were positive for COVID-19.”
After that initial wave of illnesses and fatalities, Stemer says he believes the situation at Symphony Joliet has now stabilized.
“All of the COVID patients are on the second floor,” he said. “The patients without COVID are on the first floor. The staffings are not shared---there’s one staff for the second floor, and one staff for the first floor.”
Going forward, he says he is encouraging a policy which he hopes will be a model for all nursing facilities - testing all staff members. He said he would likewise like to staff all residents, but currently that is not a protocol advocated by regulating authorities.
But Stemer suggested that until actual treatment drugs are developed, the nursing industry must take aggressive measures on their own, because the coronavirus represents entirely uncharted medical territory.
“This is a problem that we are going to have to get used to,” he said. “There is no doctor that learned anything about it in medical school, no doctor that learned anything about it during training. Why? Because it doesn’t exist. It did not exist - it’s still not in any textbook.”